Grateful Dead album, released 1970
"I will say that I still love American Beauty but I cannot think of another of their albums I'd still listen to without cringing at some point." - dannye
"For once a truly beautiful album cover is more than matched by the record inside" - Andy Zwerling (Rolling Stone)
Mea Culpa. I don't think I actually listened to any Grateful Dead albums until 2005. It's my own fault, being born and brought up across The Pond in England, and being a Rolling Stones fan, to boot. Of course, I must have heard their songs played on the radio, but was never moved enough recognise the band as distinct from any other, let alone actually buy an album. As a result, my expectations of the band and their music were skewed. Whenever I heard people talk about the Dead, I imagined them to be playing some sort of hardcore psychedelic acid rock, hence I left them alone, veering more toward The Doors and Pink Floyd. For whatever reason I imagined both those bands were English, rather than American in origin, and at that young age, I imagine that I was still full of musical chauvinism. My later recognition of The Doors as an American band did not move me, and I continued to enjoy them.
At any rate, I had never stopped to pay attention to the Dead's music until I settled in California, and was exposed to Christine's music collection, which in its own way, was as eclectic as mine. I could write a bloody book about the opening of my mind to other forms of music and different artists, but I will for now content myself with this band, and this particular album.
Surprise, surprise! The Grateful Dead is not all about 60s druggy/psychedelia after all! It's all about rock'n'roll, and American folk tradition, a little country, and of course a good deal of West Coast Sound. I wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or delighted, at first. Some tracks I'd heard before, and of course, because I'd never associated the songs with the band, was quite amazed. Truckin' was one classic example, and darned if it wasn't almost as much Beach Boys as rock. It was rather like seeing my breakfast egg wink at me.
I wasn't really able to hang my hat on anything at first listening. After all, I lacked the cultural background to fully appreciate what they were about. Real "Country music" was something I still had to come to terms with, after years hearing only the most commercial (and awful) C&W on British radio playlists. I have to admit now that identifying the threads of real Country music, and American folk, was part of the key to really getting to enjoy this new sound.
A Little Background
This was the Dead's fifth studio outing, and the recording started soon after Workingman's Dead, and was produced by Stephen Barncard. The cover, so Wikipedia informs me, contains an ambigram; the letters for the word "Beauty" can also be read as "Reality". Myself, I had to squint to see this, but then my eyesight is not what it was.
Musically, it's a little bit rock'n'roll and quite a lot of folk music, with nods to both country and bluegrass styles. I remember the song Truckin', which was one of two released as singles, the other being Ripple. I have memories of hearing Friend of the Devil many times on the radio, and had assumed it to be a single, though it was not.
The band at the time consisted of Jerry Garcia (guitar, vocals, piano), Mickey Hart (percussion), Robert Hunter (who wrote many of the lyrics), Phil Lesh (bass guitar, vocals), Bill Kreutzmann (drums), Ron McKernan (harmonica and vocals) and Bob Weir (guitar and vocals).
My first impression I have already mentioned; the lack of the psychedelic influences I'd been expecting (the band had moved away from the acid music by the late 1960s). My second was "Wow, so this is an intriguing mix!", and it is. The roots of the component parts being largely unknown to me, I nevertheless explored with some delight. As I began to dip in, slowly the essence of Americana began to unwind from the eclectic weave.
Box of Rain is a slow and simple Country track, gentle and emotional, yet not sappy. Layered guitars, good vocal harmonies and a superb intro make this an ideal opening. Worthy of note to DeadHeads is the inclusion of Phil Lesh on lead vocals, on his recording vocal debut.
Friend of the Devil is a wonderful, classic track, oft-covered but rarely improved upon. With some wonderful guitar work and awesome mandolin by David Grisman, it's a great favourite of mine, a song I love to sing along with. One day I will learn all the words, and join in the tale of a man on the run from the Law and the Devil. Its wondrous American folk style makes for easy listening, and it's by far the catchiest tune on the album.
Sugar Magnolia is quite a poppy love song, smooth and sensual, but that does not do it justice. Some great steel guitar is woven in and out of solid vocals and percussion, and although it is a three-minute song, seems too short; I always want it to last a little longer.
Operator follows with a nice-and-simple Country guitar-picking intro, clear and steady rhythm and whilst it's a decent song, I nonetheless feel that the vocals let it down a little. Woven with some blues harmonica, it's a straightforward enough song, but doesn't stand out, at least not for me.
The opening of Candyman could almost be from a Rolling Stones song. It's a little bluesy, with a lot of rhythm laid over by good Country guitar work. I find myself humming along easily, but not convincingly attached to the lyrics. Nice tune.
Ripple is slow Country, and quite beautiful. Both lyrically and musically, it delighted me on first hearing, and the more I listened, the more I got from it. It is a track to listen to if one wants the best from it. The harmonies have a little Gospel feel, and whilst it appears simple at first, subsequent playings reveal ever more detail, from a perfectly-timed choral harmony to simply heavenly mandolin. Classic, beautiful and haunting. Hear it a dozen times for full effect, and then segue into Brokedown Palace. The pace slows, the vocals are more relaxed, but the feeling is very similar, though with a little more Gospel and more of an R&B feel. Emotional, almost religious, it's almost inseparable on the album, but lacks the delicacy of Ripple.
Till The Morning Comes is one of the "rocky" tracks, with a lot more of a 60s sound than the rest of the album. It's a nice change of pace after the preceding reflective tracks, is a lot more open and certainly more simply produced.
Attics Of My Life is beautiful in a very different way - think Beatles meets Beach Boys. In some ways it's a disappointment, as the tempo is so slow that I almost fell over it. I may upset fans if I say it's quite plodding, but I'm going to say it anyway. I feel that it's a minute too long; I can only take so much four-part harmony. I really want to hear Pick Floyd cover this, just for kicks.
Truckin'. Ah, what more need be said? It's the story of a touring band, "Chicago, Detroit and New York, and it's all on the same street". Listen, and you'll hear the sound of the cat's eyes as the tour bus drives over them. It's practically flawless, energetic and with a few surprises thrown in. All in all, it's a biography; listen carefully and almost the whole history of the band is there, the drug use, run-ins with the Law. It's all summed up in the famous line toward the end, "What a long strange trip it's been".
Is it a classic? Well, yes it is, even if as dannye said that the band is hard to listen to with a straight face. The album has aged a little, seems a little hippie today, but is to me representative of a musical turning point. Thank you, Grateful Dead, you created a marvel which has become a part of the soundtrack to my own truckin' life. I will long love your harmonies.
For Christine and dannye, who inspired me to write this.